Gone But Not Forgotten
- Aug 18, 2002
- Reaction score
http://www.mvgazette.com/features/index.php?story=20040326_sea_ballsSea Balls: You Can Only Find Them Here
By C.K. WOLFSON
It was as if Nature was tweaking us, reminding us to take note of both her creative powers and whimsical tendencies, when this past week she turned the beach at Squibnocket into a sandy playing field, littered with as many as a hundred odd-looking, baseball-sized spheres.
It was just the sort of natural mystery that Felix Neck director Gus Ben David appreciates. When Cindy Meisner called him on Tuesday and began to describe her sighting, he exclaimed, "I know exactly what it is - sea balls."
He had been alerted to the phenomenon by Felix Neck program coordinator Rebecca Taylor and her fiancé, Eamonn Solway, who reported seeing the sea balls at Squibnocket earlier this month.
It was about 35 years ago that Mr. Ben David first discovered the presence of the sea balls, the name he coined for the rarely seen cylindrical and round balls of varying sizes - an intricate composition of ocean debris, molded and knotted together by Nature's hand.
When dried they are lighter than tennis balls and fragile to the touch. In his collection Mr. Ben David has one oblong sea ball, approximately 18 inches in diameter. Like handcrafted artifacts, the seaweed, twigs, roots and eroded beach and sea grasses are entwined in a tight weave. Smaller samplings, made primarily of grass, are dense and perfectly round and become buoyant and are carried away by the surf.
It was in the 1970s, after a strong southeaster buffeted the Island that Mr. Ben David headed for Squibnocket and watched as waves carrying the matted debris pounded the base of the cliff face to the left of the parking lot. In the back wash of the wave, the matted threads gradually became churned into balls - a process akin to rolling strands of twine between the palms of one's hands.
Similar to tumbleweeds, but formed with greater precision and much rarer, sea balls seem to require a specific sequence of conditions involving high southeast winds and currents, beach topography, ocean debris and storm conditions.
The mystery that remains is why they form so infrequently, and why the Vineyard is the only place that has reported sightings. Other questions are raised: What, if any, are the indicators, from what distance does the debris collect and do sea balls exist in any other locales?
Mr. Ben David has tried to find answers. In addition to consulting with knowledgeable Vineyarders, he tried unsuccessfully to seek answers from places such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Recent calls describing the sea balls to the institute's David Radosh, curator of aquariums, biologist Clyde MacKenzie at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries and Dery Bennett of the American Littoral Society in Sandy Hook, N. J., resulted only in appreciative curiosity. Oceanographer emeritus George Hampson, a biologist for more than 40 years who has done research all over the world, said he's never seen anything that fits the description.
Frank Steimle, another biologist from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries, having viewed a photograph of Mr. Ben David's samples, suggested the balls were composed of clumps of salt marsh grass turf mixed with marsh shrub remains. In his opinion they likely came from an eroding salt marsh.
"One of nature's wonders," declared Mr. Ben David.